On March 4, dancers from the Tkaronto Métis Jiggers group and a fiddler from Métis Strings hosted a crash course on Métis jigging at U of T’s Goldring Fitness Studio. Métis jigging, a syncretic style of dance that fuses different styles of European step dancing and Indigenous footwork, performed to fiddle music, has found a place in Toronto with the Tkaronto Métis Jiggers. 

The history of the jig is fascinating, stemming from some of the interactions between First Nations peoples and Canada’s first European settlers. The jig is not only a style of dance but also a practice of survival, resistance, and community bonding. The Varsity spoke about the Métis jig with Megan Southwell and Alicia Blore, who, in addition to Teagan de Laronde, ran the dance class on March 4. 

Blore and Southwell attested that the Métis are a musical people: they both described that music was always encouraged in their families. Southwell traces her ancestry on her father’s side to Penetanguishene — a part of the historic Georgian Bay Métis community — and Drummond Island. Although Southwell was unfamiliar with Métis fiddle music growing up, she had very musical relatives on her father’s side. Upon discovering jigging through the Summer Youth Program put on by the Métis Nation of Ontario, she realized she loved it. This is where she met Blore for the first time. 

“A story for a lot of Métis folks is, if they didn’t grow up making music, they had a natural kind of inclination to music or dance in some way,” said Southwell. “It’s something that you can do as a hobby, as exercise even, but it’s also preserving your culture and your heritage at the same time.” 

Music and survival go hand in hand in Métis history. 

When European settlers first arrived in what is now known as Canada, fuelling the fur trade, many of them started families with First Nations women. It was over generations of marriages between people of mixed ancestry that unique Métis communities were formed, and, through “ethnogenesis,” created a new people. Métis people often served as “middlemen” between European settlers and First Nations peoples. 

According to Blore, a good fur trader must possess three main skills: strength, to carry heavy loads and canoes; short stature, to fit compactly in the canoe; and musical ability. “Rhythm is so important for keeping the beat [while paddling] when you’re in a canoe all together,” said Blore. “But music also has the power to uplift people, to motivate them… and that’s also really important when you’re on a long journey together.” 

Blore’s skillful, effortless fiddling was rich with this jovial, social spirit, which carried us amateur dance students through complex footwork and entertaining dating dances. Even the colourful sashes, which participants in the jigging class used as props to guide footwork or connect a dancing circle, are not only an iconic element of Métis dress, but of survival in the days before Canada was a country. When tied tightly around one’s waist, the sash served as a weight belt to prevent injuries while lifting heavy objects and prevent dying from strangulated hernias — the main cause of death among voyageurs during the fur trade period. Among its many uses, it could also serve as a tourniquet or spare thread for sewing. 

A pivotal moment in Métis history was the Red River Resistance, led by Métis revolutionary Louis Riel. Post-1867 confederation, the Canadian government — then centralized in Ontario and Québec — sought to consolidate its power over the rest of Canada’s vast territory. In 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell Rupert’s Land, which included the historically Métis Red River Settlement in Manitoba, to the Canadian government. An openly expansionist Englishman, William McDougall, was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the newly acquired region, and to prepare for an influx of Anglo-Protestant settlers from Ontario, the government sent surveyors to re-stake the land. 

The Métis National Committee, with Riel at its helm, was founded in response to this threat against Métis cultural and land rights. Incorporating “the West” — what we now call Manitoba and Saskatchewan — into the Canadian confederacy was a tumultuous and violent process. The Canadian government hung Riel for treason for his role in the resistance out West but he is recognized now as a hero by Métis peoples and French Canadians. After the hanging of Riel, Blore’s ancestors had to flee Red River Settlement — now known as Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

“There was, especially in [Ontario], a lot of hatred towards the Métis community,” explained Blore. “You [had] soldiers coming from the City of Toronto, from this kind of proper area, coming to fight our people, to kill our people, and literally wipe them off the face of the Earth out West. And that has lasting impacts.” 

Indeed, Toronto’s history might be described as diametrically opposed to the flourishing of Métis culture, but today, talented fiddlers like Blore are creating new histories and connections in the City. Blore has been living in Toronto her whole life, and after discovering she had Métis heritage in her teens — her great-grandfather was a great fiddler from Sainte Rose du Lac, Manitoba — she wanted to learn the fiddle tunes from his community. She now attends jigging or fiddling events and fiddling competitions across Ontario. 

The Métis community is active in Ontario, including through Métis Nation of Ontario Chartered Community Councils, and uses a system of family lines to trace their heritage. There is no “historic” Toronto Métis community, but the Toronto & York Region Métis Community Council represents many urban Métis of the GTA. The Tkaronto Métis Jiggers taught members of the U of T community not only a fun dance to fiddle music but also the rich tradition of Métis resilience that shaped Canada’s history.